A Man of Bars And Measures

Although Doug Nordquist is the country's No. 2 high jumper, his heart really belongs to the high school band he directs
June 14, 1987

Doug Nordquist Dons white gloves, steps up to the stage of the Whittier (Calif.) High auditorium and begins to lead the assembled high school bands of the district in a spirited rendition of Seventy-six Trombones.

This is the most important practice of Nordquist's day. He is the band director at nearby Sante Fe High, and he clearly enjoys his work. There is a spring to his step. The music carries him along. Nordquist is in his element. He asks the band to "bring the flutes up a little more." He speaks to them of bars and measures.

Nordquist, 28, is wearing sneakers and worn jeans. None of this seems out of place until you notice that the cuffs of the jeans stop well above Nordquist's ankles. He lacks either a sense of fashion or pants with a 38-inch inseam.

Rehearsal ends and the teenage musicians begin to scatter into suburbia individually and by groups, some brapping short improvisations on their horns and reeds. "Band kids are a lot like athletes," says Nordquist. "The psychological qualities—clannish, arrogant, untrusting. For band kids, just as for athletes, there comes a time when it's 90 percent mental."

He was a band kid, too. In fact he was a drum major at Washington State in 1981 and '82, a period he still celebrates with a license plate on his pickup that reads WSU BAND. NOW he teaches music to band kids. It all seems to fit nicely—except for that 38-inch inseam.

"I've never been able to give all of myself to the other thing," Nordquist says, mysteriously. "I'm afraid to devote myself to it. I've done pretty well teaching."

The other thing. He speaks of it as though he were engaged in an illicit activity. What could it be? At 6'4" and even wearing a peach-colored warmup, Nordquist resembles nothing so much as the band kid he once was, save for creeping male-pattern baldness. In his "other life" Nordquist remains concerned with bars and measures and rests in between. But the bars in question are above a high jump pit, and the measures have challenged the American record.

Nordquist is the defending TAC champion and the No. 2-ranked high jumper in the U.S. behind American record holder Jimmy Howard. But with his victory in the high jump at last year's Goodwill Games in Moscow and his record in the three years since he placed fifth at the LA. Olympics, there's no question he is the No. 1-ranked high jumper-band director in the world.

You have to look closely to understand an athlete like Nordquist, if indeed an athlete he can truly be called. What else do you call someone who can jump over a bar more than 7½ feet in the air? How high can one go on exuberance, optimism and a 38-inch inseam?

It's not unusual for suspicious security guards to stop Nordquist as he makes his way into an arena for meets. "You sure you're a competitor?" the guard will ask. Nordquist usually just smiles and shows his number, then goes over to the high jump pit, where he renews acquaintances and carefully measures off his 10-step runup as carefully as he marks up a music score. It's also not unusual for him to win the event.

His coach, Jim Keifer of Fullerton Community College, muses, "He was always just a kid who didn't know how good he could be." Keifer has tried, in vain, to get Doug to devote himself completely to training to be the best high jumper he can possibly be.

Athletes know how important it is to win, even if they can't do it. The better you are, the more important it becomes. Yet Nordquist says he is more satisfied with the jumping itself than the winning. The thrill is in the doing. He seems almost afraid of what surrendering to competition would do to him. "I never wanted to make a living at it," he says. "What a horrible way to make a living. I can't jump for dollars. I swore I'd never become like that. I like getting paid. It's convenient, but I can't jump to pay for a Porsche or the mortgage. Jumping was a way to go to college."

He considers his jumping in a different way than, say, Edwin Moses does hurdling. Nordquist feels lucky if he wins. He has seen what the need to win can do to the losers if you define losers as everybody who doesn't come in first.

When Nordquist finished fifth in the '84 Olympics after missing his last attempt at 7'7" (Dietmar Moegenburg of West Germany won the gold with a jump of 7'8½"), he waved to the crowd, happy with his high finish. Later, back in his room at the athletes' village, he cried—not because he had failed to medal, but because he was so happy to be the fifth-best high jumper in the world. Not bad for a band director who had made the U.S. team in an upset. He cried because it was over.

"It was the pressure," he says. "I always jumped because I could jump, not because I was obligated. All those people, the Olympic Games...it was unbelievable, just making the team. Then all the medal counts, the gold-or-nothing attitudes. It bothered me. I made seven-six. I waved. I was so happy to jump that high. I wanted to make sure people knew that. I was proud to be fifth. If I had won gold, would I have been able to go back to teaching again? I don't want to think about it."

Later he saw his Olympic-team roommate, Antonio McKay, who was crushed because he won only a bronze medal in the 400 meters. McKay believed he was the best 400-meter runner in the world. He just might have been, most of the time. But he wasn't on the day they ran the final of the Olympic 400. So that was that.

"He walked in after that race and plopped down. We must have talked for an hour. He had never really lost before," says Nordquist. "He was so sad." Nordquist vowed it would never happen to him. Surprisingly, since the Olympics, almost in spite of himself, Nordquist has been winning. If not most of the time, he has won when it counts the most. He has earned a reputation for jumping his best at big competitions, which has made him a respected and feared opponent. He won the '86 TAC championship at 7'7¾", a meet record. Howard was runner-up. "I won that meet in my mind five times before I stepped on the track that day," he says. "I was just going to jump until they all stopped jumping. Until someone said, 'No more jumping today.' I didn't watch a single other guy jump. I couldn't. I just concentrated on myself. I didn't miss until the American record [7'8¾"]."

He followed that with an even more impressive victory at the Goodwill Games, clearing 7'8", his personal best. And this year promises just as much success, maybe more. After some nagging injuries in early April, he has been training well. "I jumped 7'5" in practice," Nordquist said last week, then quickly added, "and the band got a Superior rating at the district festival music competition." He bristled at the recent prediction in Track & Field News that he would finish second to Howard at the TAC Championships in San Jose at the end of June. "All I can say is they don't know me very well."

At this rate he has a chance at the World Championships in Rome this September, assuming he qualifies at the TAC meet, as well as a second shot (shudder) at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. "I think I've got a better chance to PR than Dwight does, at this stage," he says, speaking of Dwight Stones, the 33-year-old jumper who is probably the antithesis of Nordquist in every other respect, even though the two are third cousins. Stones's and Nordquist's great-grandfathers were brothers. It was while watching his cousin win the bronze medal in the '72 Olympics at Munich that Doug, then 13, decided to try high jumping. He ran out into the backyard and jumped over a broomstick that two friends held up as a bar. "Initially, there were girls at school I couldn't outjump," Nordquist says.

He was built for the event, but he never was like his cousin, even though he tried to be. Ebullient and competitive, Stones wears his confidence like a badge and has made a career out of jumping and talking on TV about people who jump. "For a long time I just wanted to be like Dwight," says Nordquist. "I was doing things for him instead of doing them for me. And it was changing me. I can't jump like that—when it's expected. I change. My brother, Ken, had to bring me up short. He told me I was becoming an egotistical so-and-so, just like the people I swore I'd never be like."

For Stones, the bar represents the cold, hard facts of life. For Nordquist, the bar is a sort of daydream, definitely something not to trust enough to call a career. "I train to jump high," he says. "Not to beat people, but to jump high."

When Doug was three, his parents, Neal and Bonnie, took him to a band concert at Whittier High, where Neal Nordquist has taught social studies for the past 29 years. Little Doug got out of his seat, toddled up to the stage and began making conducting motions along with the band director, which everybody thought was pretty funny.

"The love of music has always been with him," says Neal. "At first, he chose the drums. We weren't too excited about that." The other Nordquist children—Ken is 26, Sue, 24, and Pat, 22—weren't particularly touched by music. "Doug got it all," says Neal. He went from the drums to the sousaphone. While those two instruments are the guts of a marching band—and Doug was a marching-band kind of kid from the start—they are not exactly seen as solo or ensemble instruments. The logical course for Nordquist was to become a drum major in college and then to teach band. That way he could stay close to what he really loved.

But he was bitten by this other bug, too. In addition to the band, Nordquist joined the track and football teams. He never missed a football practice despite playing precious few minutes in any games. In track, he was a mediocre hurdler. But he wasn't a bad high jumper. Pretty good, in fact, for a band kid. In 1977 he tied for third in the state as a senior at Sonora High in La Habra. In first place was Dennis Smith, who jumped 7'2". Smith went on to play football at USC and is now a strong safety with the Denver Broncos.

Nordquist went on to Fullerton for two years before enrolling at Washington State. He is now working toward a master's degree in phys ed at Azusa Pacific. His jumping is paying the tuition there. Along the way he was aided by Keifer and by Harry Schneider, Stones's coach.

Meanwhile Nordquist got his teaching credentials and began directing the band. Stones periodically tried to get him to join the track circuit, but, says Nordquist, "He finally gave up on me."

"Dwight knew that you'd have to give up everything to realize all your potential," says Keifer. "And I was like that—ever since Ralph Boston showed me how to run through the air when I learned to broad-jump. But for Doug it was just all wrong. He had to tell Dwight no, no, no."

"Dwight has made it 15 years without injury," Nordquist says. "He makes his living jumping. If he had gotten hurt, then his livelihood would have been taken away. If I was hurt, I wouldn't be debilitated. I have a job.

"Jimmy Howard has an instructional video out. Dwight's supposed to be coming out with one too," he says wistfully. "I don't know; I just never learned how to do it that way."

Nordquist remains as astounded at his own accomplishments as his father, who says, "At the Olympics, I was amazed. Not only that it was my son out there jumping, but that anybody I even knew could do such a thing."

The world may not get a high jump record out of Nordquist and he may not win a medal, but the TAC, the World's and the Olympics are the big meets, where Nordquist has shone the brightest. Who knows what he might do when it counts the most? Of course, he could quit teaching, train six hours a day, make his living jumping, raise his PR two inches or so and by 1988 still be the fifth-best high jumper in the world. But he would no longer amaze himself and his family.

For now he trains and jumps when he's not teaching, and he practices for the high school spring concert. There are misplaced notes here and there, but by and large the kids do themselves, and their director, proud. No one will give Nordquist any medals for this, either. But you have to admit—it's not bad for a high jumper.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERDoug is adept at baton or bar but is unwilling to give his all to jumping. His 7'6½" won this year's Sunkist (top). PHOTOANDY HAYT[See caption above.] PHOTORICH CLARKSONNordquist was so pleased by his L.A. showing that he waved to the fans after his last jump. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHUnlike his cousin Dwight, Nordquist isn't jumping to make his living as an athlete.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)